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on 5 November 2009
This is the sort of book that looks as though it ought to be of interest to musicians because it is written by a psychologist, and of interest to psychologists because it is written by someone knowledgeable about music. It appears that Levitin has had the great benefit of working for a long time in both the music industry and in academic psychology, and one would expect him to have valuable insights into both music and psychology.

So it is all the more disappointing to find his book so lacking in depth or, for that matter, ideas. The basic - very basic - information on musical terms is fine, but do not expect either scholarship or brilliance from this book. Levitin's efforts to relieve the prevailing dulness with ill-advised attempts at humour are merely embarrassing, but his relentless name-dropping and pointless anecdotes very soon become irritating.

Do not buy this book. If you want to know about music and the brain, get Huron's book 'Sweet Anticipation' or Ani Patel's book on Music and Language. Then you will be learning from people who really know what they are on about.
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on 16 March 2010
When I first saw this book I was excited by the prospect, I am interested in musicology and thought this crossed with the private life of the brain would be an excellent read. How wrong I was.

Really the title should read "This is my brain on music" as this seems to largely be an auto-biography of Levitin's life to date with a few interesting facts he has picked up along the way added. The musical tastes of Levitin are also apparent in the reading, when he briefly mentions Schoenberg he writes like a gun has been held to his head as he was told he had to at least acknowledge that twelve-tone exists. Then back to the Beatles which at times almost feels like he is saying that they are the only band that has ever written a song to excite the brain.

When he does write the occasional interesting fact he then proceeds to beat it to death with several attempts at an explanation, an analogy or two and another anecdote. Once you think you are past the worst of it a couple of pages later he seems to start trying to explain it all over again. For me this led to several bouts of rage telling the book "YES I GET IT!"

To me this book felt like the publisher had accidentally published the first draft rather than the edited final copy. There are one or two interesting facts in the book but they are smothered by dumbed down explanations, anecdotes and Levitin's personal tastes leaving you with very little science or musicology but a rather foul taste in the mouth.
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HALL OF FAMEon 3 December 2007
When a rock musician, a sound engineer and a neuroscientist combine their talents to explain how we think about music, it promises to be interesting. When those three individuals are present in one man who also writes well, the result is compelling. With a strong scientific foundation - no little of that from his own work - from which to build, coupled with his production experience, Levitin has launched a new phase in the understanding of how the mind deals with the outside world. In the manner of colours we think we see, sounds are simply vibrations of air until our brain identifies and translates them for us. Without descending into arcane terms for either the brain or music, he skilfully guides us through the process of "music appreciation" - and why we do.

Musicians enter our lives more intimately than almost anybody else. They can inspire us, influence our lives in innumerable ways, and they are available at any time - virtually at our command. We welcome their presence even when we haven't consciously sought them out. Music is always a personal relationship, sometimes very intense, generating emotions perhaps hidden or suppressed. How can the movement of air molecules generate such reactions in us?

In answering that question, Levitin takes the reader on describes the path sound takes from its entry into the ear. Nerve impulses from sound have a number of paths open to them. Widely dispersed areas of the brain process the signals, further triggering a variety of reactions. Much new information about sounds and the brain's reaction to them has come to light in recent years. When the sound is music, the brain actually goes through mathematical calculations to register timbre, pitch and other musical elements. Familiar music activates responses in the brain's temporal lobes, working with the hippocampus to retrieve memories and formulate new, integrated ones. Areas in the brain, particularly the cerebellum, display increased activity when listening to music, far less so when hearing simple or incoherent noise. Recent studies also point out the influence of the cerebellum in emotional response, a find challenging long-held views of that part of the brain's role. Music's generation of feelings is non-specific - we don't necessarily associate it with those around us. When we do take neighbours into account, it generally enhances the feelings - so long as those folks aren't interrupting our listening.

Lest the reader think all this neuroscience is lofty, obscure and "soul destroying" analysis, take heart. Levitin introduces his book with a discussion of "what music can teach us about the brain, what the brain can teach us about music - and what both can teach us about ourselves". The range of music he uses as examples is clear indication of the breadth of his interests and research. At one point, he visits John Pierce, the founder of "psycho-acoustics" who sought the six tunes best exemplifying rock and roll. The choices are illustrative, but Pierce proved more interested in how sound was manipulated by the performers than in the songs. Although the limits of the research preclude detailed analysis of classical pieces, Levitin examines Bach's flute cantatas to explain how variations in sounds stimulate emotional reactions. Mahler's music brought innovation to the symphonic format in ways that made his compositions particularly effective in evoking listener response.

Providing a wealth of information, this book is a treasure. You needn't be a musician or a critic to gain from it. Any listener, and all of us are that irrespective of our "taste" in music, will be impressed by what is going on in our minds when hearing music we adore or which repels us. In fact, even "new" music which may not attract us on first hearing it, can become another trigger for positive emotional response. Read this book and listen to it again. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 10 November 2007
A very interesting explanation on what makes music sooo attractive to the vast majority of us... the first two chapters are in my opinion, heavy to read (I had to go back several times to try and get the idea); actually, in this regard I found the first statements of the author a little bit contradictory, since as he somehow explains, science (technical facts) should be explained "easily"... well, it wasn't in my opinion for the most of the beginning. After that, the book gets much lighter, much friendlier and "simple" to understand.

The way -Daniel Levitin explains- how our brain rather than "concentrate" certain functions or types of information in particular parts of our brains (as it was thought), rather "distributes" them in several to be first accumulated and then processed between all of those (and others) I found new and fascinating. Also, the property that our brains have to adapt and learn new things (tricks!) is overwhelming too... (There's hope then!), contrary to the ancient believe that as we grow old, new knowledges are difficult to learn (assimilate). Then he explains how these and other characteristics add to make music sooo enjoyable... (it is possible to live without TV, but not without a radio!).

Good book. I'm glad I ordered it!
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on 27 May 2016
Irritating lack of scientific knowledge by author who can't grasp 'complex' concepts like second harmonic. Also doesn't know of any scale other than equally tempered. Not a good book for someone who want's to understand music as he never goes into any real depth.
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on 17 June 2008
The first section of this book is a rough guide to the structure of music. If you know music, you won't need to read it. If you don't know music, I think it'll bore you. Then we get the brain stuff: here's a flat writer trying to be entertaining, dropping in references to Sting, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and other, er, contemporary artists. There are some dull arguments - eg how are we able to categorise music so easily when pop bands like the Carpenters use distorted guitars and rock groups, like the Rolling Stones, employ a string section. Who cares?

It's also interesting who he doesn't mention: nothing on Kraftwerk, Stockhausen, very little on techno, dance music, electronica, DJ culture, blip-hop; nothing much on Indian music, next to nothing from Africa. In short he concentrates on rock dinosaurs of the seventies: Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and, of course, Sting.

Some of the writing verges on the banal, such as this: "It is also important to distinguish celebrity from expertise. The factors that contribute to celebrity could be different from, maybe wholly unrelated to, those that contribute to expertise."

There is very little in this book that opens up new vistas, or shines a light on a dark and dusty corner of music - it's all pretty obvious stuff.

Towards the end of the book we get a quick run through arguments for the importance of music in mate selection. Here's just one: "Far more women want to sleep with rock stars and athletes than marry them." Aside from being asinine (do more women want to sleep with Britney Spears than marry her?) hasn't Levitin been arguing he's talking about music, and not celebrity?

I read a great many pop science books. This has to be one of the worst. Levitin makes a fascinating subject achingly dull. His writing is trite, long-winded, dreary, boring and fatuous. And every time he mentioned Sting I wanted to throw the book across the room. I kept at it hoping it would get better. It doesn't.

I hated this book. I hated it it because it took two weeks of my life away. Finally, to the blurbs: "Endlessly stimulating" writes Oliver Sacks - he should know better; "You'll never hear music in the same way again" says Classic FM magazine.

"Music seems to have a wilful, almost evasive quality, defying simple explanation, so that the more we find out, the more there is to know. Daniel Levitin's book is an eloquent and poetic exploration of this paradox." And guess which pretentious old rock arse gave Levitin's book this high praise?
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'This Is Your Brain On Music' looks at the neuroscience behind listening to and performing music. Although I've read many popular science books and am familiar with the style of writing, I found this to be quite a hard going book at first. The first couple of chapters look at the structure of music and are quite dry to plow though. If you know music theory this will cover familiar ground and if you don't I'm sorry to say that this is a laboured way of gaining that understanding. However after you get through these chapters this books really comes into it's own, with lots of fascinating experiments and facts it starts to pique your interest and you become more engrossed in the points being made. The chapter linking our auditory system to the cerebellum and the associated emotional linkages made for especially interesting reading. Overall this is a interesting read and if you can get past the first hundred pages you are in for some interesting ideas, presented in an engaging and informative way. 3 1/2 - 4 stars.

Dedicated to Stephen A. Haines whose reviews inspired me to read some amazing science books and who will be greatly missed.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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VINE VOICEon 10 July 2012
I bought this book as I know almost nothing about music other than that I like it! I was hoping to "understand my obsession" as the sub-title says, from a lay point of view. I ended up none the wiser after 260 pages. The first part of the book is a real show stopper for starters - launching into a 50 page chapter on "what is music". My eyes misted over after endless discussion of chords, keys, scales and all the technical stuff I don't know and don't what to know. But I ploughed on hoping for better.

Then the rest of the book is in part rambling, part technical (lots of talks of chords, keys etc) and a lot of it is not even about music. There's even a whole chapter devoted to a 10 minute informal discussion with Professor Crick when he was 90!

It's not all doom and gloom. There was the odd good page!
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on 11 February 2010
I'm obsessed with music - it's my entire life. I'm a musician/songwriter, and I was immediately intrigued on reading the cover, that I may never "hear music in the same way again" after reading this book.

This book is sometimes very interesting, and it is worth the read for the occasional gem, but it was a struggle and half way through I found myself gazing at all the other books on my bookshelf waiting to be read, wishing I could muster the energy to stumble through yet another paragraph of scientific babble about the "hippocampus" or the "nucleus accumbens"!!

I understand that this is about how the brain works to percieve music, but most of the time I was struggling to understand what Daniel Levitin was talking about.

If you are a musician with a good knowledge of science, this might be the one for you, but for someone with very little knowledge of the latter - steer clear!!
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on 21 October 2009
Difficult to place... is this academia or anecdotal memoirs?

First of all I think it needs to be said, that this is not a bad text per se. Sure it has faults - lots of them, but I really feel that the positives outweigh the negatives and that the hoards of supposed 'professional musician/scientist' (I think not) who appear to have read this text and given it a one star rating are perhaps motivated by false-pride and jealousy - never a good combination on which to build sound judgement!

The real problem with this text is that, to quote from the 1950s it doesn't 'know its place'. It reads in parts like an academic text, maybe an undergraduate thesis. Then it veers off into the world of gossip, anecdotes, and conjecture. It is almost like a mild Schizophrenic who thinks on the one side, they are an MIT professor of socio-musicology and on the other that they are an orator, a teller of stories, tales and anecdotes in an c.18th circus.

Throughout this tussle one cannot help but think Professor Levitin is not one of those sad baby-boomers who (under his sterile lab-coat) still tucks his paunch into a pair of faded blue-jeans, which he wears as some empty statement of post-conformist rebellion.

To the text...

The plusses.
i) There are lots of very interesting correlations between the points he makes, and the visual Arts, something which interested me personally.
ii) In contains some genuinely fascinating revelations.
iii) It appears to be mostly well researched and well founded.
iv) It gives the novice reader a window into both musicology and neuroscience - albeit a tedious and dull one.

The minuses:
i) It is VERY, very, VERY boring in parts. Is this due to the subject matter? or the penmanship? One is never quite sure.
ii) It is full of dull, mostly irrelevant anecdotes. The sad professor mingles with the has-beens, the never-rans and the odd star.
iii) Levitin appears not to know how to use personal pronouns. The text is littered with THE most bizarre use of 'he' and 'she', when a simply 'they' would suffice.
iv) Sadly the edition I purchased contains spelling mistakes and errors in literary protocol.
v) Very often conjecture masquerades as Truth, with no citation to support his stance.
vi) Levitin occasionally leaves his field of obvious expertise and wanders into other academic disciplines where he looks like an ill-informed half-wit.
vii) Overall, the text lacks continuity in parts; continuity of both argument and of logic.

The conclusion.
To restate, I would say it is worth investing your time into reading this and it is worth persevering until the end. Although there are a LOT of minor annoyances such as those mentioned prior, there are conversely, a good deal of genuinely interesting points, which may or may not assimilate with areas of your personal interests. Like Santa, though, I feel that there is surely something here for everyone, no matter how small the gift may be.
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